Softbank’s Son offers robots built for human joy

Japan’s richest man Masayoshi Son loves buying robots.

In the past few weeks, he’s invested in a company called I-Robot which makes a vacuum-cleaner which can crawl under the sofa and in Boston Dynamics, which makes a remarkable robot, can perform athletics and run playfully through the snow.

Mr Son said this week that: “People who deride robots face a future in which they will be overtaken by robots.”

Such remarkable claims often accompany his international deal-making. His talent for producing soundbites keeps him in the news.

In a three-hour presentation in Tokyo last Thursday, Mr Son, who is the chairman of the technology company Softbank, spoke of a bright future in which traffic accidents cease, cancer faces elimination and everyone and everything is connected to the internet.

He spoke in Japanese but thanks to the news agencies which covered the event and translated it (AP and Kyodo) we can read many of his statements in English:

• “Smart robots with artificial intelligence can learn by themselves and act on their own.”

• “Artificial Intelligence is not designed to put mankind at risk: it is designed to make humans happy.”

• “We want to connect one trillion devices to the internet.”

• “We are experiencing an information revolution which will benefit more people than the 19th Century Industrial Revolution.”

• “In the future, people who rule computer chips will rule the entire world and those who rule data will rule the entire world.”

Journalists love reporting such claims but they often question whether everything is true. For example, Leo Lewis in the Financial Times expressed scepticism this week about whether Japan’s recent splurge of international takeovers will turn out to be profitable.

More investments from Softbank and Mr Son are inevitable. He controls a $93 billion Vision Fund, based in London, which is constantly on the hunt for investment targets.

Alongside the robots, Mr Son wants to find business which share his vision of the “internet of things.”

His biggest risk to date was the purchase of the US telecoms company Sprint in 2013 for $21.6 billion.

He admits that’s turned out to be a very troublesome investment and a there’ was some sharp analysis of the deal in the magazine Nikkei Computer, recently, which revealed the frequent shouting matches Mr Son’s been having with Sprint’s American managers.

However, Son-San is a colourful character, among an otherwise monochrome set of Japanese executives.

Who else in Japan could keep an audience engaged during a three hour talk about science and then continue to generate global headlines almost every day?

Japan’s centurion on how to live a good, long life

One of the world’s longest-serving doctors has died at the age of 105.

Shigeaki Hinohara helped revolutionise medicine in Japan and continued to treat patients almost up until his death. His obituaries, including this excellent piece on the BBC, tell the story of his remarkable life.

When he was 95 years old, I met Dr Hinohara at St Luke’s hospital where he worked. I asked him why he established an organisation aimed at bringing a good quality of life to elder people.

You can hear a recording of the interview in English here

Here’s the transcript of our conversation:

The reason why I made the social group for New Elderly Citizens over the age of 75 is because quite a number of these people have good energy and power to keep working. So I wanted to help these people keep on working, even if they have some physical problems.

How old is an “old person” in Japanese society now?

Among the young generation, say kids under ten, they have the view that anyone over the age of 50 is old! But generally speaking, 60 is borderline and in many civilised countries, old age is seen as over 65. In Japan, most of the working people start to retire at 55 or 60. But the government is eager to raise the level to 65 as most government employees retire at 60. Generally speaking though, people over the age of 65 want to keep working.

And can they still contribute to the economy?

Yes, not with occupations with a salary but as volunteers. Only the farmers keep on working because the young people don’t stay in the country.

Well, I have been to the Japanese countryside and I have seen people working to the age of 70, or even 75 even. Why does that happen?

The young people leave the farm and want to go to the capital city for more jobs and more income.

So, if you look at Japan’s society as a whole, will there still be a big economic contribution from those rural communities, where people are generally getting very old?

Yes, but the number of the farmers is decreasing because the income from their harvests are so low. They often take other jobs and only go out into the fields on Saturday and Sunday. That’s not productive.

You said you are encouraging people over 75 to work. What do you mean by that?

I don’t mean work for themselves – I’m talking about contributing to society. If they have the talent for teaching mathematics or science, why not educate the kids? But they think only of themselves or their families and they forget to look out for others.

But even in the worst situation during the War, we helped each other. Kids and adults these days think too much about themselves or their home or their company.

We should be telling the stories of the real Japanese culture. I think we have a good culture and this should be known by the new generation. If we have a good culture, we can export to that to other countries, too.

Does Japan’s EU deal mean “Sayonara, UK?”

Will a free trade deal between Japan and the EU prompt Japanese companies to leave Great Britain?

That was the question raised in the British media, following the Japan-EU agreement, which was announced in Brussels by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Financial Times said Mr Abe hailed the deal as “the birth of the world’s largest, free, industrialised economic zone.” The European Commission welcomed it as “the most important bilateral trade agreement ever concluded by the EU”.

What about the UK?

So, where does it leave Japan’s relationship with the UK?

Trade between Britain and Japan is worth around ten billion pounds a year and many Japanese companies have factories in the UK, including Toyota, Nissan and Hitachi.

A leading Oxford professor has warned that some of those Japanese manufacturers will now relocate to Europe.

“Damaging and alarming”

Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, told the BBC Today Programme that the Brexit is seen as “very damaging” to Japanese business interests in the UK and that investment will be diverted to the EU.

She said the Japan-EU free trade deal is “rather alarming” for Britain, which faces political and economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote.

The Japan-EU deal still needs to be ratified by both sides. Prior to its announcement, some companies such as Nissan and Toyota pledged to raise their investment in the UK despite Brexit.

Calm Ambassador

The Japanese Ambassador Koji Tsuroka spoke on the BBC. His calm tone contrasted with the alarm mentioned by Professor Woods.

Ambassador Tsuroaka said the Japan-EU deal was “good news for all, including Japanese companies operating in the UK.”

He said the cornerstones of the British-Japanese relationship are commitments to democracy, rule of law and free trade – and these are unaffected by Brexit.

He said Japan and Britain would work together for the common good. “It’s not going to be a confrontational relationship: it will be collaborative.”

Brexit cliff edge

However, he did warn that it would be “extremely damaging” if Britain’s negotiations over Brexit are not completed within two years, leaving the country “on a cliff edge.”

Ambassador Tsuruoka said any bilateral trade agreement between the UK and Japan would depend on the future relationship between Britain and the EU, to be decided during the Brexit negotiation process.

Fujitsu’s future: Magic cars and whales in the forest

A Japanese technology expert has shared his vision of the future with me. He claims that magic is on the way.

Yoshikuni Takashige of Fujitsu told me that “significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He then went on to reveal three ideas which the company is developing which resemble magic and which are likely to become reality in the near future.

Mr Takashige is Fujitsu’s Vice President for Marketing Strategy and Vision. He said that within a few years, driverless cars will be able to collect old people from their homes in isolated parts of Japan and take them to the doctor’s.

Many old people in Japan would appreciate help in travelling to a clinic for medical treatment and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that autonomous vehicles, or driverless cars, are about to arrive on the roads in Japan soon, supported by Fujitsu’s technology.

Yet it seems a shame to replace human drivers entirely with machines. Japanese taxis are clean, safe and friendly and surely, in a robotic car, a passenger would miss the friendly company of a driver, who might be able to offer them a helping hand?

Translating machine

Fujitsu is also working on an automatic voice-translating machine. An engineer from Tokyo showed me the prototype. First, he spoke to the machine in Japanese. The computer listened carefully to his words, wrote them onto a screen and then tried to translate them. The English made sense but sounded strange.

When I spoke to the computer in English and it translated my words into Japanese. I was impressed. However, when I spoke to it in Japanese, the computer became confused. It could not understand my foreign accent and my grammatical mistakes. However, the helpful engineer who was showed me the machine could understand what I meant, which just goes to show how clever the human mind is and how patient the Japanese are when listening to foreigners! However, I expect the machine’s translation technology will soon advance and it will become a useful in overcoming language barriers.

Whales in the forest

The third idea on show at the Fujitsu World Tour was intriguing. It is a tool which records sounds around you and then allows you listen to them in other contexts. Mr Takashige showed me a charming video, which tries to express this concept visually. I liked it but I didn’t fully understand it. Why are whales singing in a forest? Are the voices on the seashore coming from the ghosts of people who have drowned? The tool is called Intelligent Sound and it appears to challenge our normal thoughts about sound and the emotions it creates.

Anyway, it was fun to meet the people from Fujitsu in London as part of their world tour. I look forward to finding out if any of the concepts transform into everyday magic.

Japan’s cheese tax melts before EU deal

Until recently, cheese was a rare treat in Japan. There are not very many cows in the country, so any type of dairy product, including cheese, feels rather foreign.

However, since World War Two, Japanese people have been developing a taste for American food, so they have started to eat cheese on the top of burgers and on pizza.

Nowadays, small packets of mild, smoked cheese are sold in most convenience stores, as snacks to accompany beer.

However, there are connoisseurs in Japan who enjoy imported cheese, especially the strong-tasting varieties from France.

I’ve seen some lovely cheese counters in supermarket delicatessens in Tokyo and Osaka but I have now come to realise that the tax on the European cheese sold in those shops is high.

This cheese tax, as high as forty percent, has provided journalists with a tangible element to explain an otherwise rather abstract story about a free trade deal between Japan and the European Union, which is due to be signed soon.

The cheese tariff is designed to protect Japanese farmers who sell their dairy products in the domestic market. Many have farms on the Northern island of Hokkaido, which supplies much of Japan’s butter and milk. Most butter bears a map of Hokkaido on its packaging.

Kyodo news quoted a farmer from Hokkaido who said that if imports of cheese, pork, wine and sweets increase from the European Union, the Japanese market will be “taken over.”

Traditionally, the ruling LDP party has close links with farmers and supports their causes but it does not want a dispute over dairy products to block a free trade deal which has many potential benefits for Japan.

If Japan drops its tariffs on European food imports, it expects Europe to phase out tariffs on cars and auto parts.

The European Union’s Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has said she is “quite confident” that a broad agreement on free trade can be announced at a summit on July 6th with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Britain was a supporter of a free trade agreement between the European Union Japan but its influence ceased following the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.

Japan had sought a trade agreement with the United States known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership but that fell apart when Donald Trump steered America towards protectionism.

AIIB offers “open invitation” to Japan

The head of strategy at the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) hopes America and Japan will join China in supporting its projects throughout Asia.

Dr Joachim von Amsberg, who is the AIIB’s Vice President, as well as its head of Policy and Strategy, claimed that the backing of the US and Japan would “strengthen the institution.”

Those two countries were sharply critical of the AIIB before it launched in early 2016, when they claimed China would use the bank as a tool to extend its global influence. China provides around a quarter of the bank’s capital.

However, Dr von Amsberg told an audience at Asia House in London that the AIIB operates “freely and in a non-political way” with China as its largest shareholder.

He said that all major policy decisions require the support of its member countries and it is therefore in China’s strategic interest to act as “a trusted leader of a multilateral operation.”

“China is exercising its influence very responsibly,” he added, noting that there are now 76 countries represented on the AIIB’s board, including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.

Dr von Amsberg said that Asia’s need for infrastructure investment is enormous, running into many trillions of dollars, but it is often difficult to match investment capital with appropriate projects. “Supply and demand very rarely meet in emerging economies,” he said.

“Just because someone needs water, doesn’t mean that someone will invest in water.”

Dr von Amsberg said that the AIIB is more focused than other institutions on identifying projects which are likely to offer a good return on investment. Referring to the IMF and the World Bank, he said: “The old institutions could not grow and adjust to a changing world.”

He also claimed that the global climate of low interest rates has created a thriving opportunity for institutions such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds to invest in infrastructure projects.

Pressed by Asia House’s chief executive Michael Lawrence on whether the AIIB supports China’s “belt and road” policy of expanding economic and diplomatic influence, Dr van Amsberg said that there was only a limited overlap.

He said that the AIIB’s projects in countries such as Indonesia are primarily aimed at making a return for its investors and benefitting local communities, rather than expanding Chinese power there.

Hokusai prompts great wave of admiration

The admiration in the West for the classic works of Japanese art shows strongly in the critics’ response to a new exhibition at the British Museum by Katushika Hokusai. Nearly all the newspapers have published enthusiastic reviews. Many writers have noted the way Hokusai’s work influenced European painters, especially the French Impressionists, and they hold him up as one of the world’s great eccentric, creative minds.

Some critics attempt to explain the context in which Hokusai worked in Edo period Japan, when the country was largely closed off from outside influence. For example, John T Carpenter, Curator of Japanese Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, suggested in a lecture at the British Museum that Hokusai’s most celebrated painting, The Great Wave, could imply a fear of a malevolent foreign force threatening the relative safety of the islands of Japan and its sacred mountain, Mount Fuji.

Hokusai lived from 1760 to 1849 and many of his best works were completed in his old age. He died at the age of 89 at a time when average life expectancy for a man in Japan was the late forties.

The Spectator magazine claims that on his deathbed, Hokusai, attended by his doctor, said a prayer. ‘If heaven will extend my life by ten more years… then I’ll manage to become a true artist.’

Hokusai produced a great range of work, from a whimsical picture of chicks to be sent as a greeting card to bloodthirsty images of war and religion.

The Guardian’s critic John-Paul Stonard says Hokusai was a thoroughly commercial artist, relying on a large turnover of sales of his low-cost prints and the many illustrated books he produced throughout his life. Despite his success, he seems to have been permanently on the brink of bankruptcy, largely a result of financial ineptness.

The historian Simon Schama in the Financial Times shows apparent disdain for the customers who bought Hokusai’s pictures: “To keep out of mischief, the nobility was required to stay in Edo,” he writes. “Inevitably, as at Versailles, an emasculated, over-dressed, politically pointless class compensated for its impotence with stupendous, conspicuous consumption.”

I flinched when I read that description. I study the way in which the international media covers Japan and I have found it to be depressingly common for foreign writers to contrast the supposed frailty and impotence of Japanese men with the erotic allure of Japanese women. I believe it forms part of a narrative by which Westerners emasculate Japanese men and imply that virile, sophisticated foreigners are superior.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want Simon Schama’s remarks about the decadence of Edo to put anyone off from seeing this wonderful show and drawing their own conclusions about culture and gender.

I agree with the case the Daily Mail makes for the exhibition: “This is a simply joyous experience, an introduction to one of the greatest of all artists at his most liberated.  Try to find a quiet morning – many of the exhibits reward patient attention to detail – but go.”

China and Japan’s crucial role in Africa

The government of Japan strongly encourages trade with Africa. However, the World Bank warns that a slowdown in parts of the region could hamper investor confidence. Furthermore, with China firmly entrenched in many African countries, Japan faces stiff competition.

From Nairobi, Kenya, Duncan Bartlett reports.

Many busses which carry passengers around Nairobi resemble four-wheeled nightclubs. Lights flash, music blares, and passengers try to sing and dance, despite being squeezed tightly into their seats.
The buses are known as matatu in Swahili. They are often painted in bright colours—orange, purple, and red—and are decorated with pictures of icons from pop music, football, or religion; Bob Marley, Renaldo, and Jesus. The paint is supplied by Sadolin, a company which was bought by Japan’s Kansai Paints in February 2017.

Like other companies on the expansion trail, Kansai Paint has used the support of experienced Japanese government officials, who smooth the path for businesses abroad. “Japanese companies are often shy about entering new markets, so we show them how to do business here,” said Natsuhiko Naoe, who represents the Japan External Trade Organisation, Jetro, in Nairobi.

Government push

On a visit to Kenya in 2016, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “We have a feeling in our gut that, in Africa, where possibilities abound, Japan can grow vigorously.”

Mr. Abe pledged that Japan would invest US$30 billion. A key goal is to bring electricity to three million homes by 2022, through investments in hydro, solar, gas, and geothermal projects. Unfortunately, Mr. Abe’s announcement coincided with a major economic setback. In 2016, sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth declined sharply. The region’s three largest economies—Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa—were all badly affected and the World Bank predicts only a modest rebound in 2017.
However, with 55 countries in total, Africa presents a mixed picture. In 2016, for example, Cote d’Ivoire was a stellar performer with a GDP growth of 8.2%.

Competition with China

Japan is not the only Asian country expanding its presence in Africa. China has hailed Africa as “golden ground” and has extensively invested in oil-producing countries such as Nigeria and Angola. China also owns most of the copper mines in Zambia. However, the recent sharp fall in commodity prices and a rise in wages have prompted it to scale back its investments.

Japan and China compete for some contracts relating to natural resources, such as oil, copper and liquefied natural gas. When they go head-to-head, the Chinese government throws its full weight behind the bidding process and provides concessional financing through the China Development Bank and other state-owned enterprises. Japan’s response can seem slow and timid, partly because it is decided through a complex bureaucracy.

China’s golden ground

Chinese regards Africa as a vital source of essential commodities, such as oil, gas, and copper. Chinese companies also see Africa as an important market for their goods. Chinese motorbikes, rice cookers, and flat-screen TVs are popular with Africa’s growing middle class.

Some of China’s projects are on a vast scale. In Kenya, it is funding a US$4-billion railway, and Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking a loan of $6 billion from the Export-Import Bank of China for its railway projects.

China often brings its own construction workers to Africa to join local teams. The Africans welcome the investment but are sometimes wary of the Chinese workers who live in compounds separated from the local community. “Are they prisoners?”one Kenyan woman asked me.

Political rivalry

The political rivalry between China and Japan can also be felt in Africa. Japan aspires to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its diplomats encourage African nations to vote in favour of its bid. China opposes Japan’s plan and wants the Africans to vote against it. This can lead to tense situations in which politicians are pressed to decide which East Asian country they most favour, as though choosing between rival suitors.

In business terms, the Japanese government and commercial banks offer sophisticated deals to fund power, telecoms, and transportation projects.

Jonathan Bell, editor-in-chief at Trade & Export Finance (TXF Media) in London said: “Japanese corporations are increasingly active in Africa and they are backed by export credit support from government agencies such as JBIC and NEXI. Their advantage over some of the Chinese competitors is that they also have support from strong commercial banks such as MUFG and SMBC, which are looking to expand in Africa. Some African governments are pleased to work with the Japanese because they don’t want to be over-reliant on the Chinese.”
However, the two Asian countries are not always rivals. “China is a strong competitor but sometimes we can collaborate,” one Japanese official, who is based in Africa, told me. “They can construct the roads and we can make the cars.”

Duncan Bartlett is a former BBC Business Reporter and founder of Japan Story. The full version of this article is published on the website, Japan Forward.


The Olympic magic of Japan’s “Oriental Witches”

The largest ever TV audience in Japan was for the Witches of the Orient (東洋の魔女  toyo no majo), a female volleyball team which bewitched the country in 1964. That was the year that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games – an important milestone on Japan’s journey from defeat to its post-War economic boom. The Witches’ story was told by Professor Helen Macnaughtan at SOAS, part of London University, at an event entitled Sport & Diplomacy. The Professor explained that many Japanese people bought colour television sets so they could watch the Olympics and this helped stimulate the electronics industry and the economy. There was great delight when the volleyball team won a gold medal. However, viewers were not just excited by the sport; they were also intrigued by the relationship between team captain Masae Kasai and her strict coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, known as The Ogre. Professor Macnaughtan said the surviving members of the volleyball team do not mind being remembered as The Witches, as it has become a term of affection and respect. Later, Mama San Volleyball was used to describe the sport’s popularity among women following the games.

When Japan hosts the next Olympics in 2020, one of its goals is to encourage more girls and women to take part in sport, according to the Director General of the Japan Sports Agency, Tetsuya Kimura. He told the meeting at SOAS that inclusion and diversity are key to its success. He showed a photograph of female volleyball players in Cambodia. They were leaping in the air on a patch of ground which had previously been planted with landmines. Volunteers from Japan had helped to clear the mines and then encouraged the local girls to take up the sport. It was a powerful image of the positive impact Japan hopes to achieve through the Olympics. Perhaps the magical influence of The Witches lingers on.

Will an Improbable deal prove a winner for Japan?

Why has the Japanese company Softbank invested a big sum of money in a British company which has not yet made a profit?

That’s the question raised by Softbank’s deal with a young tech firm which creates virtual worlds on computers. It is called Improbable and rather improbably for a firm with no disclosed income, it has announced a deal with Softbank worth around 500 million dollars.

Softbank, which is not a bank but a huge tech and telecoms conglomerate, will gain a stake in Improbable but not a controlling stake. Softbank’s Managing Director Deep Nishar is joining the Improbable board.

A person close to the deal told me that Softbank shares a vision with Improbable about how its technology can be shared globally. Softbank’s chief executive, Masayoshi Son, loves to invest in companies which share his exciting dreams for the future.

Softbank has been operating a $100bn Vision Fund out of London, backed with money from the Saudi government as well as Apple. The Improbable deal is not part of that fund, but could be offered to its investors.

Some commentators have complained that this sounds like another British company selling out to foreigners. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones wrote: “Time and again, we hear the same lament: that Britain has great universities turning out lots of clever start-up technology firms, but we lack the ambition to stay the course.”

Nevertheless, Japanese investment in the UK is welcome during the Brexit negotiations. David Rowan, the editor of the tech magazine Wired told the Financial Times: “the influx of large-scale funding from respected out-of-Europe investors will be a huge boost to the tech sector’s confidence.”

Last year Softbank bought the British chip designer Arm Holdings for 24 billion pounds. That deal came very soon after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Quietly, a few months later, Softbank sold 25 percent of its stake in Arm.

Another deal involving Softbank does not come as a huge surprise. Last week, I reported in my blog that a senior banker in the City of London told me that Japan’s companies have billions of dollars to spend and are “very much up for it” when it comes to buying foreign businesses.